Sherman Alexie: A Stand Up Guy

This year, Multnomah County Library selected two books by Sherman Alexie- Ten Little Indians and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for their Everybody Reads community-wide reading project. The first is a collection of short stories for adults while the second is his National Book Award winning novel for young adults- and personally one of my favorite books ever.

Sherman Alexie’s a writer who’s been recommended to me for the longest time. When I read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” a few years ago, I liked how relatable the main character was. While this followed a similar arc to many coming of age stories out there, of the protagonist persevering through whatever challenges came their way and ended up being better for them, this was somehow different and refreshing.

With its strong but honest language and a lot of the subjects covered, I can see why certain groups may be offended with the book and may want it banned. But I think that’s what a great story does. It makes us uncomfortable in its ability to mirror our lives and ourselves in its pages.

I was instantly hooked when I picked up “Ten Little Indians.” I just wanted to stay home and read through the whole thing but I also wanted to take the time to enjoy each of the stories before going on to the next one. I was impressed by how each story sounded different yet there were some things that were mentioned or touched upon repeatedly. Each one was better than the last.

I was fortunate enough to see him speak for Literary Arts’ Everybody Reads lecture. I love how in Portland writers can feel like rock stars, the way people sell out these kinds of events on a regular basis. And he didn’t disappoint.

The lecture started out with a drum circle and dance performance before Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke talked about Everybody Reads and the role of books in generating conversations within a community. Literary Arts Executive Director Andrew Proctor introduced Sherman Alexie by sharing one of the writer’s quotes from his essay “Superman and Me” of how through books, reading, and writing, “I was trying to save my life.”

Hearing Sherman Alexie speak was like having his books come to life. He talked exactly as he wrote. I saw the autobiographical parts in the fictional stories he shared in his books. Hearing Sherman Alexie speak was like going to a stand up performer’s show. He joked about not being the next Pope and that eventually led to him telling the teenage students in the audience to wear condoms. He called the students another word but I don’t want to write it here. And, as random as those two topics are, he somehow made them make sense.

It was a little preview of what we could expect from him. Through many tangents, he talked about his childhood of being sick, poor, invisible, and lost. He made fun of everyone in the audience- but mostly of himself. He made everyone uncomfortable with his uncensored words and improvised sign language. He made us laugh but also made us think. (Seeing him crack up at his own jokes was amusing.) I liked how he uses humor to deliver a serious message by making them stand out in contrast to one another.

Two things he said really impressed me. The first was “the quality of your life is determined by how willing you are to leave your traditions behind.” This tied in to his belief of evolution, of how progress is made by basically someone saying “Fuck this shit!” to his circumstances and moving to somewhere unknown and perhaps greater. Leaving his reservation to attend a primarily white school was an example of this which yielded to his realization that he was “indigenous to the land but an immigrant to the culture.” He has a mastery of words I can only dream to have a fraction of!

I can go on forever but I won’t. The night was incredible. I know I’ll be reading more of Sherman Alexie in the future!

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